One of the very first domain names to be seized by US authorities as part of Operation in Our Sites was that of the very popular TVShack.net. It was seized in mid-2010, a move which triggered off dozens more seizures in the months that followed.
Last month, however, it became clear that ICE and DHS had not simply forgotten about the site. They had homed in on Richard O’Dwyer, a computer science undergraduate studying at a university in the north of England. Originally from Chesterfield, the 23-year-old now stands accused of being the administrator of TVShack and the US authorities want him extradited to the US to face trial.
The seemingly global nature of Operation in Our Sites is causing a jurisdiction-bending headache for onlookers, one which is putting immense pressure on O’Dwyer himself. Despite being a UK citizen, despite his site being very similar to TV-Links, a site already cleared by the UK courts as operating legally, and despite TVShack running on a non-stateside server, US authorities say O’Dwyer has broken the law there.
So on what grounds do ICE and DHS feel they can prosecute O’Dwyer and others like him around the world, individuals who are clearly outside US jurisdiction? Simple – they operate a domain name operated from inside the United States.
“The jurisdiction we have over these sites right now really is the use of the domain name registry system in the United States. That’s the key,” says ICE assistant deputy director Erik Barnett speaking with The Guardian.
The only necessary “nexus to the US” is a .COM or .NET domain for which Verisign acts as the official registry operator, Barnett added.
The fact that Verisign-operated domains are prime targets for seizure by US authorities was highlighted in our earlier article, but that operating one should now provide grounds for site owners to be extradited to the United States is an unsettling development.
From earlier cases, such as the one involving the OiNK BitTorrent tracker, it became clear that hosting a site overseas did not save a UK admin from prosecution. Nevertheless, there are plenty of UK-based site operators who host their sites in relatively friendly locales such as Canada and do so relatively unhindered.
However, the ground appears to be slowly shifting under their feet. Time and again its been shown that WHOIS protection services can be bypassed by determined US-based entertainment company lawyers. Even if real identities can’t be obtained this way the MPAA-backed Federation Against Copyright Theft has enough standing with the UK police to obtain the real identities of site operators should they so desire, without the complication or expense of instigating a civil lawsuit.
Once the authorities have an identity, all options seem to be open.
Of course, ICE isn’t restricting itself only to the UK – anyone with a .NET or .COM extension could become a target – but with its US-friendly extradition agreement, things could heat up there very quickly.